Captain America: Civil War isn’t my favorite Marvel movie ever (that’s probably Winter Soldier), but it’s definitely up there. (This has spoilers, so tread carefully if you haven’t seen the movie yet. Or, better, go see the movie and then read this.)
I’m pretty used to being disappointed by the two big comic book companies lately, and if I’m being honest, I hate the Civil War arc. I hate it. Some of that comes down to the fact that generally speaking, Marvel doesn’t handle events very well in my opinion, and most of it comes down to the fact that I’m a person who is allowed to like and dislike whatever I want for whatever reason. It doesn’t have to be a good reason, either.
So I wasn’t actually looking forward to Civil War the movie because I assumed that it would be more of the same, that Cap would die, and that we’d be stuck in this stupid grimdark comic movie universe that it seems like everyone thinks they need to make in order to get adults to enjoy it. I’m talking about you, Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan. I’m talking about you and everyone else who thinks that superheroes have to be gritty and hopeless in order to get someone besides their original target audience—that is, kids—to enjoy them.
I was not only pleasantly surprised, but extremely pleased with the fact that my assumptions about this movie were wrong. We’re at a point where it’s difficult not to compare DC and Marvel to each other, and there are plenty of DC fans who think that reviewers give an unfair favorable advantage to Marvel, and they have a point: Marvel has bought its audience over literal years of grooming them to enjoy their movies. Age of Ultron was garbage, but we all came back for Ant-Man, because, well, why wouldn’t we? (Also, who doesn’t like Paul Rudd?) People went into Batman V. Superman ready to judge it and compare it to what they’ve been getting from Marvel, which is unfair since Marvel has had the time and energy and devotion to actually build up characters in a way that means audiences actually care about them. They were expecting the same attention to (general) audience feelings that they get from Marvel, and were not only disappointed not to get that, but also in the fact that Batman V. Superman had to deal with a bad script, a flat Superman, and a director who was given more money than he actually knew what to do with.
So unfortunately, all superhero movies—but especially DC movies—are going to be compared (fairly or not) to Marvel. All Marvel movies have to be compared against each other, or against DC. That’s just the way people look at media: we compare it to what we already know.
I think if anyone else had directed Civil War, it probably wouldn’t have been the movie it is, and I don’t think the audience would have trusted Marvel so much with it. As it stands, the Russo brothers came back and made a solid movie. Unlike in Batman V. Superman, there was room enough to make jokes—and that’s the whole thing. Civil War is not a light-hearted movie. It has some very dark themes, and it deals with trying to figure out a solution to the consequences of actions that frequently get people killed. But it doesn’t weigh an audience member down with that darkness; it gives us room to breathe, which I think is what people in general need whenever they’re faced with tough situations. In media, as in life, we need a joke that can break the tense moment, and we need to be able to laugh sometimes even when we’re at funerals. Life is sad and difficult, but that doesn’t mean it has to be anger and distrust and overall hopelessness the entire time. Somehow, that fact is lost even when Snyder had SUPERMAN, who has been the symbol for hope for several decades.
In any case, there’s a pretty clear contrast between a Superman who tells us that not everybody can be good all of the time, and a Captain America who promises us that he’ll be there when we need him.
And I think that contrast is what sets the two movies apart, and why people are much more willing to see a Marvel movie and talk highly of it than they are to do the same for a DC movie. DC doesn’t promise its audiences anything except more overwhelming darkness. Even when Marvel gets dark, we’re given a light at the end of the tunnel.
There are political aspects to the movie that can’t really be avoided when you’re talking about it, especially since we’re at a moment in time where personal freedoms can seem to be at stake. It’s a Captain America movie; politics are inherent to the character, as much as executives may have tried to defang them in the past. We can think about what it means to have freewill, what it means to give up personal liberties, and we can think about what doing the right thing means to any of the various characters in the movie; there’s not a moment where any of the heroes really think they’re doing anything wrong by sticking up for what they believe in.
But then we also have a moment where it stops being rooted in the politics of morality—what does it mean to be good or bad, and how can we hold morality accountable?—and very much focused in the personal. Why does T’Challa go after Bucky? To avenge his father’s death—not to bring him to justice for the entire explosion at the U.N.—even though that is ultimately what he does with Zemo. The climactic battle of the film between Cap, Bucky, and Ironman is entirely motivated by personal grief, and Black Panther is the only one who finds it in him to let that go and do what is best for all of society: not just what’s good for his best friend, or what will help him feel at peace with the loss of his family; he’s the only one who follows our conventions of what a hero really should be, and that’s important. Somebody has to overcome the personal and seek out what’s best for the greater good.
At the same time, the fact that these fights really are so personally motivated reminds us that our heroes are human, and not in the “We’re going to kill them with Doomsday” way, but in the “Everybody, even Captain America, is capable of being selfish.” He doesn’t stop being good, but he doesn’t let Tony kill his best friend, either. Vengeance is not the solution, ever, and Black Panther reminds us that we all have to move beyond that.
On a less serious note: this movie was nice to look at. There is a lot of light in this movie that is otherwise a very dark film, content-wise, and I think that the balance between those is important in keeping an audience from getting sucked into an overwhelming feeling of despair while watching it.
It’s a very hopeful and optimistic movie, all things considered, and it’s the kind of superhero movie I think people not only want and have come to expect, but need. Sometimes, what you need isn’t Superman dying, as good of a story that could have made if done in someone else’s hands. What you need is Steve Rogers telling you that when you need a helping hand, it will be there for you. Marvel reminds us that sometimes, even for all the bad that there is in the world, there’s still some good, and there are still people who will help you. And I think that’s what people need.